Monday, March 23, 2009

Dude, where's my data?

At the risk of making it seem like I'm ranting at a dead horse, here is some more on the scientific status of social science, this time from JS Mill (1843, A System of Logic, Book VI, Chapter III).

His intro to the topic:

"1. [There may be sciences which are not exact sciences] It is a common notion, or at least it is implied in many common modes of speech, that the thoughts, feelings, and actions of sentient beings are not a subject of science, in the same strict sense in which this is true of the objects of outward nature. This notion seems to involve some confusion of ideas, which it is necessary to begin by clearing up."

True in 1843, true today.  Then an interesting analogy to the analysis of another complex system:

"Any facts are fitted, in themselves, to be a subject of science, which follow one another according to constant laws; although those laws may not have been discovered, nor even be discoverable by our existing resources. Take, for instance, the most familiar class of meteorological phenomena, those of rain and sunshine. Scientific inquiry has not yet succeeded in ascertaining the order of antecedence and consequence among these phenomena, so as to be able, at least in our regions of the earth, to predict them with certainty, or even with any high degree of probability. Yet no one doubts that the phenomena depend on laws, and that these must be derivative laws resulting from known ultimate laws, those of heat, electricity, vaporization, and elastic fluids. Nor can it be doubted that if we were acquainted with all the antecedent circumstances, we could, even from those more general laws, predict (saving difficulties of calculation) the state of the weather at any future time. Meteorology, therefore, not only has in itself every natural requisite for being, but actually is, a science; though, from the difficulty of observing the facts on which the phenomena depend (a difficulty inherent in the peculiar nature of those phenomena) the science is extremely imperfect; and were it perfect, might probably be of little avail in practice, since the data requisite for applying its principles to particular instances would rarely be procurable."

To conclude:
"Hence, even if our science of human nature were theoretically perfect, that is, if we could calculate any character as we can calculate the orbit of any planet, from given data; still, as the data are never all given, nor ever precisely alike in different cases, we could neither make positive predictions, nor lay down universal propositions."

This claim speaks to my earlier question of 'what is the point?'.  I do not doubt (in line with my commitment to the principles of physicalism and the causal completeness of physics) that there are fundamental laws of human behavior.  But I have no idea at what level these laws obtain.  It is dubious that these laws obtain at the level of aggregate collective phenomena like `democracies don't go to war with each other', especially if we are talking about any impressive level of accuracy.  And this means data collection problems, and so, Mill says, screw it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Anti-Scientism #1

Friedrich Hayek, not an authority that one might automatically want to venerate, had inter alia this to say in his nobel prize acceptance speech

There is as much reason to be apprehensive about the long run dangers created in a much wider field by the uncritical acceptance of assertions which have the appearance of being scientific as there is with regard to the problems I have just discussed. What I mainly wanted to bring out by the topical illustration is that certainly in my field, but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science - or to deliberate control according to scientific principles - more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects. 

The progress of the natural sciences in modern times has of course so much exceeded all expectations that any suggestion that there may be some limits to it is bound to arouse suspicion. Especially all those will resist such an insight who have hoped that our increasing power of prediction and control, generally regarded as the characteristic result of scientific advance, applied to the processes of society, would soon enable us to mould society entirely to our liking. It is indeed true that, in contrast to the exhilaration which the discoveries of the physical sciences tend to produce, the insights which we gain from the study of society more often have a dampening effect on our aspirations; and it is perhaps not surprising that the more impetuous younger members of our profession are not always prepared to accept this. 

Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's the point of it all?

I have been prompted in the last few days to think about the dreaded question of "What's it all about anyway, when you get right down to it? What's the point?". I'm not talking about the meaning of life (which I have figured out already) but social science, and especially political science. The issues that I have been focusing on are the idea of 'cumulation' and the implications of a constructionist position for the aim of social scientific research. If that sounds ambitious, I am thinking about it in quite basic and unsystematic terms.

Constructionism includes the idea that social phenomena have no existence apart from what they mean to people. So, if everybody stops thinking about and talking about and acting as if a particular university exists, then it does not. Also, if the idea of a university is not part of the total social cluster of ideas, then it is not possible (or rather, highly unlikely) that anyone would start to think, talk, and act as if there was a university. Finally, what it is that a university means, the entirety of the actions and ideas that are associated with a university, is not unitary. By this I mean that you could have a society in which university is something slightly different from another society. This is in fact the case in the world - being at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts is a very different proposition from being at a massive regional normal university in China. So, does it make sense to aim at making general propositions about, say, the effect of having a university degree? Economists do this all the time (I imagine). If by general proposition, I mean a proposition that applies just as much in 11th century Bologna as it does in 21st century Washington DC, then it is clearly preposterous to say that it is a worthwhile enterprise. There is a clear analogy to international political phenomena, as war today involving European powers is different enough from war in mediaeval Africa for us to say that propositions about the causes, consequences, and practice of war must be bounded at least partly by the spatio-temporal context.

If this is so obvious, why would anyone think otherwise? The model of the natural or physical sciences is a powerful lure. One of the things that it is said that the physical sciences have is 'cumulative' knowledge. I am not sure what this means. If it means that later scholars use previous scholars' work in their own work, then anyone has that. If it means that scholars do not challenge earlier scholars' work, then this is patently false as scientific breakthroughs can take the form of discovering that the previous ideas were all wrong. A very convincing account of why there is this high-consensus, rapid-discovery science in the natural sciences is Randall Collins' 1994 article (“Why the social sciences won’t become high-consensus, rapid-discovery science.” Sociological Forum 9, no. 2: 155-177) where he attributes these features of the natural sciences to the appropriation of research technologies. This makes natural science look useful to outsiders (because of spin-off technology, like the internet) and directs attention away from continually revisiting and challenging the work of previous scholars. All of this is unrelated to epistemological validity, i.e. is physics more right than sociology, which I would say is a different question. So, my contention is that cumulation is not a goal that I would sacrifice very much to attain.

But cumulation is not the only thing that 'naturalists' (those wanting social science to be like natural science) want. They also want prediction. Much of the prestige and the justification for believing the natural sciences to have it right comes from being able to say stuff like, "I swing this ball on a rope here at 0.02 millifrutors and the magnesium hydrosulfate will turn green in 3.4 seconds" and then it does, again and again. Social scientists could do this sort of thing as well, like the prediction that 200 or whatever million Americans will get up tomorrow morning and go to work, many of them driving on the right-hand side of the road to get there. For some reason (and I think this reason is actually much more important than other people think it is) this is not impressive to anyone. Polisci also does other types of prediction; see Abramowitz, Alan I. 2008. It’s About Time: Forecasting the 2008 Presidential Election with the Time-for-Change Model. International Journal of Forecasting 24 209-217. This is very limited compared to what the natscis are able to demonstrate in laboratory or experimental settings, but it is not impossible in principle to use social scientific theory to predict human behavior. Again, I'm not sure that this kind of prediction is all that, or even largely what, we as social scientists should be doing.

So, why is constructionism such a threat to naturalism? Partly because many of the phenomena that political scientists study change out of all recognition. The state at all did not exist prior to about the 14th-15th centuries and the 18th century european state is so massively different now that any propositions about the causes or effects of political units of that type are unlikely to apply to anything now or in the future. It is not just acceptable that we can say that there are a set of starting conditions and whenever these starting conditions obtain, their effects also obtain. This happens in natural science, even in cases like geology or evolutionary biology they are working with similar types of evidence as social scientists, but the difference is that there are recurring starting conditions. In social science, if constructionism has any force, sets of starting conditions are only similar within tightly bounded social contexts (which are themselves bounded in space and time). This is why much of social science cannot have the same properties as natural science.

What does this mean for how we use social scientific research? I don't know, but I'm thinking about it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

One of these economists is not like the other.

I feel like I cannot stop walking around muttering "fucking bankers" every fifteen minutes. Despite all the messes they have/are making of the world, they still give the impression that they are masters of the universe. Hindsight is, of course 20/20, and although no-one could know exactly WHEN the world was going to go to hell, it was going to happen, and it was the bankers' and their lobbyists' fault.

Now that we are on the beginning of what may be a very long slide, videos like this really grate.

Smug wankers.

It is nice to see them get their long-overdue kick-to-the-face; at least in terms of how they are being viewed by society, if nothing else. Check out this evisceration conducted by the Daily Show. Bankers and financial gurus (although witch-doctors might be a better description) take note: you must be truly hated for people to be booing on a COMEDY show.